This essay is a re-post from the Anxious Bench, where it ran on Dec. 23, 2023.
2023 was a year of violence.
In addition to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine – a war that pundits said at its outset posed the greatest threat to European stability since 1945 – Israel was plunged into its most protracted and horrific war in decades after Hamas attacked in October.
In addition, thousands of people died in a war in Sudan this fall, and a few thousand more have died in intermittent fighting in Ethiopia that followed the two-year Tigray War, in which an estimated 600,000 civilians died between 2020 and 2022. Thousands also died this year in an ongoing war in Myanmar. And these are just a few of the ongoing violent conflicts in the world this year.
There have, of course, been years in which war casualty rates have been far higher. Thankfully, we’re not in the midst of a world war. We are not currently witnessing a mass genocide on the scale of several that occurred in the twentieth century.
But the ongoing wars at our current moment are a reminder that idealistic expectations that we are on the verge of an enlightened age that will renounce war and violence are terribly misguided.
Sometimes those idealistic expectations have come from progressive atheists who, lacking a theology of original sin, imagine that with education and increasing global and humanitarian awareness, those who follow the light of reason will eventually come to see the folly of violence, and wars will become less frequent. This was the argument of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). But it was also essentially the argument of liberal Protestant progressives of the early twentieth century who believed that with the creation of the League of Nations and international disarmament treaties, major international wars could be prevented.
In each case, there was a belief that when enough people were sufficiently educated, and when they were given enough experiences encountering diversity outside of their own tribal group, they would come to love their neighbor and renounce violence. Violence was the resort only of people who didn’t know any better and couldn’t imagine a nobler path. Democracy at the national level would give people a way to solve conflict through nonviolent means, and democracy at the international level (through the United Nations, for instance) would give states the ability to do the same. The protection of minority rights through national constitutions and United Nations declarations would ensure that no one’s rights would be ignored.
But the past few years have seen a rapid erosion in global democracies. Russia has moved away from its tentative steps toward democracy in the 1990s and has become fully autocratic. Israel has been led for years by a right-wing government that has resisted progress toward a two-state solution and that a few months ago tried to restrict the authority of its supreme court. In Europe, far-right parties that are opposed to immigration and skeptical about the European have won major political victories, and some that have taken power have reduced freedom of the press. Last month, a far-right party won elections even in the Netherlands, long considered one of the most progressive and tolerant countries in Europe.
And in the United States, we are headed into an election that is likely to be a contest between a twice-impeached former president facing multiple criminal indictments and an incumbent president whom significant numbers of the opposing party deny was ever legitimately elected. The Colorado supreme court’s decision to deny the Republican front-runner a place on the ballot in view of his alleged violation of the 14th amendment’s prohibition on participating in an insurrection is a sign of how polarized this election is likely to be – and how probable it is that one side in this election will refuse to accept the outcome. Indeed, this election is likely to pose the greatest challenge to American democratic institutions than any election since the 19th century.
If that happens, 2024 is likely to be a year of greater political instability and potential violence than 2023 was, because in addition to the continuation of significant global conflicts that have no immediate foreseeable end, we are likely to also see political unrest at home.
All of this is a reminder that utopian expectations of a peaceful world and the expansion of democracy and human rights will continue to be met with disappointment.
In the aftermath of World War I, some imagined a world in which international democracy would prevent future global conflicts – but instead we saw the rise of new totalitarian regimes and the largest war the world had ever known. In the aftermath of World War II, some imagined once again a world in which an international democratic organization would promote world peace – but instead we experienced the Cold War and an international nuclear arms race. In the early 1990s, the collapse of communism in eastern Europe led some to optimistically imagine a world of ever-expanding global democratic capitalism. Instead, we saw the expansion of capitalism without democracy or human-rights consciousness in countries such as China, coupled with the rise of a new authoritarianism in Russia and new wars in the Middle East. Plus, we saw several major international genocides.
If we needed any additional confirmation that reason or “enlightenment” will not be enough to end global violence, I think that we have received it. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, original sin is the “only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” We’ve seen plenty of evidence of that in the failure of people to transcend the path of war and violence.
But if efforts to spread democracy, education, and information have not succeeded in ending global conflict, is there anything we can do? If 2023 was a year of violence and political instability – and if 2024 appears likely to give us even more of the same – should we simply give up in despair?
I don’t think so. The reason for that is not because of an optimistic view of human nature’s ability to transcend its baser instincts, but because of the promise of God.
The Bible has a great deal to say about violence. In fact, it’s a notoriously violent book, with numerous wars, murders, and acts of brutality described on page after page. But in the midst of all of this, there is a promise of a savior who will be the Prince of Peace and bring wars to an end, as the eleventh chapter of Isaiah describes. The Christian message is that that process began with the shocking reality of God taking on human flesh and then enduring violence at the hands of his own creation when he suffered death on the cross. It is through the power of the cross that God triumphed over sin and violence – a triumph that will finally be realized in its fullness when Jesus returns to finally set everything right in a world in which there will never again be any violence. As we prepare to enter a new year, we can live in light of that promise.
Living in light of that promise doesn’t mean simply resting in our Christian identity or personal piety, which will not be enough to overcome the temptation to resort to violence. The American Civil War, after all, occurred at a moment when the United States was arguably the most evangelical and most biblically literate it had ever been – and yet that didn’t keep devout, Bible-reading Christians from going to war with one another and killing each other because of opposing moral claims. Something more than Christian conversion may be required.
Perhaps that “something more” is a real trust in the power of the cross and a determination to actively seek to be a peacemaker, as Jesus instructed in the Sermon on the Mount. That starts with how we interact with others in our families, churches, and communities, and it extends to how we think about politics and how we vote. Are we seeking a path of peace or a path of power? Do we recognize that Jesus has already won the victory for us through the path of the cross – or do we feel the need to fight our own battles to win our own victories?
As we begin a new year that is already filled with violence and unrest, we can’t directly control what authoritarian leaders, terrorist organizations, and military units do around the world. But we can resolve to pursue the path of Jesus’s peace in the midst of all of this. A decision to follow this path implicitly acknowledges the pervasive reality of sin, and it is fully attuned to the temptation to solve problems through violence and force. In fact, it recognizes that the expected course of this world will be violence – and that that will be the default for us as well unless we actively resist the temptation through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting . . .” (John 18:36). But, he added, “my kingdom does not belong to this world.” It is that truth that gives us the hope for 2024.
Even if this new year turns out to be a time of fighting, unrest, and discord in this world, we can live in the light of a kingdom that is not of this world – a kingdom that sets us on a path of genuine peace.